The Business of Learning
Ben Franklin once said, "Genius without education is like silver in the mine."
Inspired by this sentiment, Detroit's Techtown sees SE Michigan's future tied to whether it can navigate the demands of an emerging new economy.
With a mission to support education at every level, this entrepreneurial incubator with ties to Wayne State University strives to transfer academic research into profitable business ventures. In particular, the Midtown Detroit organization
sees alternative energy, life sciences, homeland security, and advanced automotive technology fields as the foundations for Detroit's economic evolution.
From supporting elementary school achievement and high school internships to integrating postgraduate research into business practices, TechTown takes a multi-level approach to evolving the local "learning community."
Alain Piette believes that education is integral to business today.
"In successful companies, continuous education is a must. If you, as a senior executive do not set the example – reading, taking courses, seminars – how can you impose that on your staff?" says Piette, who has helped establish the Techtown start-up SpaceForm while getting his MBA from Wayne State University.
Piette, a seasoned automotive executive who just earned his degree last year, made a strong impression on Terry Cross, Wayne State's executive in residence. Examining candidates for a postgraduate fellowship sponsored by the Adams Fund --a philanthropic organization promoting entrepreneurial growth in Michigan-- Cross viewed Piete as the new model for business executives.
"Alain sees that the world has changed and the change has been (for a business executive) to be a more agile, nimble person," says Cross. "Thousands who have been embedded in corporations haven't figured it out."
Piette has also benefited from having Cross as a mentor and counselor while facing tough and unexpected obstacles. The budding entrepreneur quickly learned how difficult it is to finance a start-up company, and faced some painful rejection. "New entrepreneurs, even with the best academic preparation, tend to misjudge the challenge of establishing their businesses," Piette says. "The marketplace today, whether it's automotive or non-automotive, is slow at making decisions, very conservative at giving its money away."
As a start-up, he says, "you have to have the courage, the guts, the staying power to go through the cycle required to convince customers."
The entrepreneurial intern
Ryan Leaverson also got the entrepreneurial bug in school — only while in high school. A senior at University Prep Academy's in Detroit, he secured an internship and summer job at TechTown, where he learned to write a business plan for his company, Major Materials Records. The company is now producing rap music, distributing pop fashion, and even sponsoring a skateboard team.
During his sophomore year, Leaverson received the internship at TechTown and remained as a part-time employee the following summer. He credits Howard Bell, executive director of TechTown, with giving him confidence while teaching him the mechanics of starting a business. "Having someone like Howard to look up to – a successful African American — and being around people who are successful is something that helps me."
He also picked up other valuable lessons from the work world – like meeting deadlines. "Every Thursday we'd have staff meetings. I'd update the rest of the staff on my progress with particular assignments. If you missed a deadline, there would be repercussions for it."
While working at TechTown, Leaverson moonlighted on his recording business. "I worked on a business plan for my own company. … I do positive rap music for churches and schools. I wanted to start my own record label that features other artists doing positive rap music."
After his internship and summer job, Leaverson felt he had the confidence to start his business. "Everything I did at TechTown put me on the right path to know what I want to do."
TechTown firms' linkage with Wayne State makes good business sense, according to Jim Croce, president of NextEnergy. NextEnergy has helped finance the curriculum for Wayne State's master's program in Alternative Energy and is integrating university researchers in its biofuel research. The alternative energy company links graduate students with research companies located in NextEnergy.
"When you look around the country to where successful tech parks have emerged, they're always aligned with strong research institutions," he says.
Croce claims a university researchers' work is enhanced by limiting the distance – physical and virtual – between the academic and commercial worlds.
"The Internet can link researchers on several continents, but nothing replaces the quality of interpersonal encounters," Croce adds. "You can do research and collaborate from the standpoint of the Internet, but face-to-face contact between a university researchers and an entrepreneurial start-up, sitting in the same space, working together, and communicating on a technological opportunity, has value. That's why we continue to see these types of entrepreneurial campuses."
TechTown was established to create new businesses, jobs, and wealth in the region. But it also has an altruistic aspect to its mission – educating people to assume entrepreneurial work, according to Bell.
One of the true challenges of TechTown, he says, is to help narrow the gap between the relatively low literacy of the region and the requirements of future jobs. Scholastic's Read 180 program and GradSmart, a TechTown start-up, help build academic foundations for young people through tutoring and mentoring.
Meanwhile, the entrepreneurs there are also reaching out to area students. Piette will continue working with SpaceForm following his fellowship, he says, and also plans to establish a student mentorship program for young people.
TechTown is also the "knowledge source" for members of the Detroit Entrepreneurial Network (DEN), a support group representing nearly 60 Detroit-area entrepreneurs. The group, which meets monthly at TechTown, has a symmetrical relationship with the business incubator: they review business plans and provide resources for TechTown tenants, while learning from its experts. "If there's anything we need to know, either they know it or they can point us in the right direction," says the group's president, Poonam Torgal.
TechTown, it would seem, is more than a place to do good business. From top to bottom, grade school to post-grad, it's also about the business of learning.
Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer who also contributes to Model D.
Exterior of Tech Town
Howard Bell - Executive Director of Tech Town
Entry to NextEnergy
Photographs by Dave Krieger - All Rights Reserved